For most comedians, Chicago is a comedy Mecca. Home to some of the country’s best comedy schools and theaters, it’s the obvious place to move once you realize that being a full-time funny person is what you really want to do with your life. But where do comics go once they get their fill of the Windy City?
For the members of the all-lady improv troupe Catnip, the answer was Los Angeles. And they’re not the only ones. “I would say a lot of people end up coming to L.A.,” says troupe founder Rebecca Allen. “It’s something that people feel like they need to try.”
Six of Catnip’s seven members got their start performing in Chicago’s most prominent theaters, like iO Theatre, Second City, and the Annoyance Theatre. But after years of performing in various groups and putting up with Chicago’s frigid winters, they moved west, one by one.
“I think for the majority of us, we had just accomplished everything we wanted to in Chicago and were looking for some new challenges,” Allen says.
And while L.A. is now home to many familiar Chi-town faces, the scene is definitely a departure from what they’re used to.
“It’s really different from Chicago,” Allen says. “In Chicago there’s kind of a sense of even if you perform or study at one theater, you’re part of a huge community of comedians or improvisors. But in L.A., you’re very much separated by the theater which you choose to perform at. So there’s not as much crossover here.
“I also think the style of improv is different,” she adds. “In Chicago you improvise because you love it, and in L.A. you improvise because you love it but also want to get on a TV show or on a movie.”
Allen pulled from a familiar talent pool to form Catnip two years ago. After deciding she wanted to start an all-female group, she invited every female improvisor she knew to play a show; the group was eventually whittled down to its current seven members.
Besides Allen, a Second City alum with a background in musical theater, Catnip includes Laurel Coppock, who performed at iO and Second City and is the founding member of the Rag Dolls; Molly Erdman, an 11-year Chicago comedy vet who you might recognize from those funny Sonic commercials; Megan Grano, who staged Obliged at last year’s Fringe; Sarah Haskins, a writer for Infomania; Katie Nahnsen, who acted and wrote for Sports Action Team; and Amanda Tate, the group’s sole native Angeleno.
So what made Allen want to bypass the bros and start an all-female group?
“It’s kind of mind-blowing when you first perform with all women, because you’re used to improvising a certain way with men, but then the whole world opens up to you when it’s just women, because you can play guys,” Allen says. “We play a lot of little boys. We do a lot of awkward dating scenes. I think we as a group focus on relationships, so it’s mind-blowing to think you can play any kind of character you want to.”
But there are also challenges to being a woman in the world of comedy.
“I feel like you can be a schlubby overweight guy, and as long as you’re funny, you’ll work,” Allen says. “But for the females, you have to be just as funny, but also somehow look like a hot woman. In all of these blockbuster comedies, there’s 10 funny guys and still-hot women who can be funny.
“It’s really tough,” she continues. “White males will tell you it’s hardest for them, because the whole scene is inundated with white men, and that’s absolutely true. But there are a ton more opportunities available to men than to women. You’re still always seen as a funny woman instead of a funny person or performer.”
With talented groups like Catnip on the scene, chances are good that the gender gap will keep shrinking, and funny ladies across the nation can one day be as schlubby as they want. We can only hope.